Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On mizuko kuyo

 At first, it is almost a comical sight. 

The stone figures, dressed up with red hats and bibs, most of them holding colourful wind toys. The strange contrast between the hard surface of the stone, and the fabric of the hats. "Only in Japan," you think, and snap a picture of the scene. 

But then it hits you, the magnitude of these rows upon rows of sleeping stone dolls. You realize that they are not there for decoration. These figures have a function, and suddenly you suspect there is nothing comical about them at all. 

 I have seen similar - if less elaborate and fewer - statues before during my travels in Japan, and upon asking the guide I remember the vague answer "it is to help the souls of the children" or something similar. I think I took a picture of the statues then (in fact, I know, since I still have the picture), but I clearly didn't get the full explanation, or I wouldn't have forgotten.

Mizuko kuyō is a "fetus memorial service", performed monthly for (mainly) women who have had a miscarriage or abortion. 

It is a ritual surrounded by much skepticism, emotion and worry. Is it exploitation of women in an extremely vulnerable situation? After all, they pay to attend the ceremony, they buy or rent the stone figure, and certain of the dolls even have quite expensive accessories. Thus the ceremony has been criticized for being an abuse of the Japanese belief that spirits of the dead will retaliate mistreatment. The mizuko kuyō is partly intended to fend off any potential vengeance of the unborn child's spirit. But it appears that the ritual also has a number of other intentions, and that it varies from person to person what each choose to put into the ritual. Is it to comfort the grieving parents? To allow
those who are willingly performing abortions to apologize to the fetus? To help the soul transition to the next level? Or all of the above?

The ritual has been increasingly popular since the 1970s, and today both women and men participate (though the women are still in majority). It takes place at designated Buddhist temples in Japan, and the ceremony varies from place to place, though in each temple it remains relatively similar each time and many of the same participants show up each time. Not all of them have themselves lost a child - some are family members and some participate for the spirituality of the ceremony.

My initial reaction to the criticism of the ritual upon reading up on this topic was that perhaps it didn't matter if scholars thought the women were being exploited if they personally felt comforted by the ceremony. While I have no personal experience in the matter, I find it interesting to read that this reaction also seems to be the case with several Western women who has experienced loss of child and feel that there is a lack of such a ritual in their own religion and culture (one particularly moving example can be found on this blog). If dressing up a stone figure and participating in a monthly meeting helps the parents deal with their grief - or other emotions - then it should be continued.

However, recent studies show that comfort isn't the primary function of the ceremonies. The participants in one study explained that they rarely talked about their own feelings with regards to the loss - or in fact about why they chose to attend at all. The mizuko, unborn child, was not a common topic for conversation at the kuyō. It is also not necessarily immediately after the mizuko experience the women chose attend the ceremonies. Many of the study in question started attending decades after they had an abortion or miscarriage. Some of the women in question were pro-choice, some were not. Some regretted their decision, some did not. Some grieved their lost child, some did not.

Reading about the ritual didn't really make me all that much wiser. It appears to be a highly individual decision whether one decides to participate or not, and if they do participate, it seems equally individual why. In a way I guess that takes the edge off the criticism - if people don't feel forced to attend, but do so based on some personal reason or desire, it can hardly be argued that the temples are exploiting the participants.

Some of the mizuko dolls were clearly older than others.

 In the end I find it fascinating that a ritual that appears so personal, is manifested so publicly and visibly. Just another one of the many contrasts that make up modern Japan, I suppose. 


LL Cool Joe said...

I find this fascinating. I'm adopted, and also have adopted children, and am wondering how this would work for birth mothers who gave up their children for adoption.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

This really is so fascinating, the pictures look great and it was interesting to read the story behind them.


welcome to my world of poetry said...

This really is so fascinating, the pictures look great and it was interesting to read the story behind them.


Cruella Collett said...

Joe - As should be evident from the post, I don't really know all that much about this ritual. But it seemed to be very tightly tied in with 'death'. Not 'murder' (as the Japanese seems to have a very different debate over this than in the US, for instance), but a spirit that was not allowed to be born and grow up. Since an adopted child is allowed to be born, it seems to me this would be a very different situation. It might still be an issue in the Japanese society (again, not something I know a lot about), but not spiritually per se.

From a quick google search, though, it seems that adoption is in fact not very common at all in Japan. It seems they have some work to do both to increase acceptance in the population, and to simplify the process.

Yvonne - I'm glad you liked it! These statues and their stories really touched me, so I wanted to share.

Hart Johnson said...

This really is fascinating. Does Japan have any incentive for keeping families small? I mean I know China and India do various things because of overpopulation, but I have no clue how Japan sees it.

I wonder if women, in spite of it being individual, feel pressured by family (or conversely choose to do it to punish a spouse who may have pressured them?) Seems so many ways this could manifest itself. I had a friend though, who had a stillborn at 8 months, and I'm SURE she would have loved some sort of grief mechanism that made her feel less isolated and alone over it.

Cheeseboy said...

What a intriguing place. And how interesting that they go through all that trouble and comfort really isn't in the equation. Thanks for posting this. You learn something new about the world every day.

Tundiel said...

It's definitely very interesting, and such a contrast to here in Britain. Miscarriage, abortion and stillbirth are still almost taboo, they're just not talked about.

I'm all for it, though. I think if we'd have had something like this over here, it would have taken me far less than ten years to be able to talk about my own experience without sinking into a depression.

Great post, Mari.

Cruella Collett said...

Tami - on the contrary, Japan is plagued by a declining and rapidly ageing population. But this appear unrelated, as the practice has more to do with religion or the micro society, than macro policies.

Whether women feel pressured, though, I really can't say. Maybe.

Abe - I'm glad I could share. Some practices are so unique to a certain country or area that the rest of the world never really get to hear about it. I sure never had.

Tara - the thing is, I think it is still taboo here as well. I guess I agree with you on the openness if it leads to people feeling better, but I really don't know if that is the function here. It should be, of course.

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